on…Hanoi

Posted: 25/06/2011 in Travel
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Hanoi is a paradise for travel writers. You could write a thousand clichés, use a thousand superlatives or turn any simple description into the most lyrical of phrases. Having read some of the above before I visited I chuckled to myself in a knowing and jaded way. So many places I have been to have been pumped up in their advertising copy that when you eventually arrive you are a little disappointed. Many guides and websites take you on a comfortable journey down anti-climax avenue, but at the end there is nobody there to hold your hand, you are left alone, disappointed, knowing you have wasted a large amount of time and money going somewhere which is at best mediocre.

The winding fragrant alleys teeming with market traders, the relentless pace of the daily grind as it has been since millennia past. The waft of exotic spices, haggling carpet salesmen, motorbikes doing the slalom between confused tourists. Yes, it is chaos, but it is beautiful chaos. That’s right, it’s…………………………………..Stevenage.

Surely such prose would lead to disappointment, especially for Stevenage. Sorry Stevenage, I’ve never been there but I imagine it to be somewhat different from the above description. Hanoi on the other hand…

From the moment you step out onto the faded concrete of the airport concourse you are surrounded by the madness. I was aware of the numerous scams awaiting me at the airport. From hotels that don’t actually exist to fake meters on taxis there are many ways of parting tourists from their tourist dollars. I attempted to get what looked like a large coach, the woman told me the price, she even had an official looking notepad for issuing tickets. She quoted me the price but said I had to wait for more passengers. ETAs and schedules are something of a joke in Hanoi. As I waited for more passengers I looked on wearily to an extended family boarding a smaller Toyota people carrier. The driver caught my glance and offered to take me to Hanoi for 6 dollars. He had a spare seat at the front of the taxi so I guess it was a buyer’s market. I took 2 dollars from my pocket and offered it to him, the family looked a little impatient so I think he accepted it more in desperation than anything else. The woman from the other bus company looked a little peeved, but I didn’t care, I just wanted to get going. I have since learen that I paid 46 dollars less than an American gentleman I met. (Can an American be a gentleman? I think so.)

The airport is some distance from the city proper and the road passes numerous garment factories and Japanese Motor companies. If you look at many clothes or shoes in your wardrobe there’s a good chance that they were made in Vietnam. Despite all the factories the land was mostly agricultural beyond the narrow strip of  concrete on either side of the road. I was instantly hit by classic Vietnamese images. The kind of stuff you see on those black and white photojournalist shots from the war, or from the various Nam’ Movies. Women on bikes wearing conical hats with produce spilling out of their bike baskets. Slow and heavy oxen in the fields, whole families sharing motos and zigzagging through frantic traffic. I had the usual round of tedious conversation with the passengers: “American? No. English. London? No, Manchester. Manchester United? No, Blackburn Rovers. The Queen? No, Christopher Samba.’After this I was free to look at the approaching city. It’s no Megalopolis but it’s big enough to have a few large international hotels and banks. These provide a few tall buildings superimposed on an otherwise unremarkable cityscape. When the minibus descended the expressway I got a closer look at Hanoi. I soon realised that in every panorama someone is doing something incredibly weird or incredibly dangerous; usually both. There was a man flying a kite with his young son in the small grassy central area of an eight lane highway. Women were selling baguettes (the French used to be here) on the approach road to the expressway, old men were sleeping in unusual places leading to a need for extreme yoga or bone marrow transplants, and the motos, of which there are millions, were making manoeuvres that would result in instant failure of any driving test imaginable. After a brief conversation with the family and the driver I was dropped on the avenue which led directly to where I was staying. I had packed very lightly for this trip which made walking a little easier.

After checking in and being persuaded by many tours I had a decent wander round. In fact I had a decent walk round every day I was there. Hanoi is a terrible city to walk round with hazards awaiting you on every corner. If you don’t die from the traffic fumes then there are several rabid dogs, insane taxi drivers or waterborne viruses to wipe you out. Then if all else fails you will die from dehydration or heat exhaustion. I could walk for about 20 minutes without sweating, after 40 minutes I would have that sweat round the back of my neck and on my hair around the ears, after 1 hour walking I would need to change shirts or take refuge in an air-conditioned café or shop. The second sweat phase only occurs to me in England after playing indoor 5 a side football for about 30 minutes. I have a weird resistance to extreme heat. I remember it being considered manly when I was younger to have a huge sweat patch like Maradona in the 86 World Cup. After playing football in the heat for hours on end I would have at best dark patches under the arms but not much else.  I was called a monster by one of my Korean students because I refuse to turn on air-con, all my students were flaking out whilst I was pretty comfortable with a vest and shirt on. There is always a downside, mine happens to be that in winter or early spring when most people wander round with a shirt on, or a jumper I usually need a thermal vest, shirt, jumper and a large Parker coat. When I left Hanoi it was 37 degrees and 87 percent humidity.

From the moment you leave the safety of your chosen accommodation you enter into an impossibly exotic world. Hanoi is extremely asian with steaming heaps of rice and noodles, weird shaped fruits, buddhist temples, incense smoke and dark alleyways. People live on top of one another and domestic concerns spill onto the streets. There is mini plastic furniture turning every pavement into a makeshift cafe. Unlike most other Asian cities I have visited the French have left a legacy of leafy boulevards and colonial style architecture with shutters and pretty iron balconies. This French influence makes it seem even more exotic. Virtually every street would have Lonely Planet writers weeing themselves with marketable photos and descriptions, like the one mentioned earlier. Hanoi is totally deserving of all its prose and praise. Despite me complaining about it being nothing short of an exotic death maze, it is a likeable and addictive place. The pace and busyness is relentless and there is always something going on. It can get quite claustrophobic with all the motos and traffic. However, it is blessed with some pretty big lakes. These lakes offer a place to promenade and make a pleasant break from the labyrinth of streets, especially in the Old Quarter. They are the lungs of the city, probably lungs with respiratory problems leading to a wheezy cough and dull headaches, like carbon monoxide poisoning or tuberculosis. Yes, I know how to milk a metaphor. So the mixture of buddhist street temples and pleasant French style avenues make for a great photogenic experience, but what is there to do in Hanoi?

After speaking to many tourists, not by choice you understand, I would say that the attractions of Hanoi are vastly underrated. I met many people who looked at Ho Chi-Minh’s mausoleum but didn’t go inside. It’s free to get in and the queue moves pretty quickly. To see the corpse of HoChi Minh was quite spectacular in a weirdly morbid way. For a modest man who shunned the spectacle and the trappings of power it’s pretty conflicting to have a mausoleum of such magnitude. Let it be said that he wanted a simple cremation but after his death they had other ideas. He is the founder and liberator of modern Vietnam, so in a mostly Buddhist country where religious faith is frowned upon by political faith, he is bigger than Jesus in a way that John Lennon could only joke about. I also visited the Hoa Lo prison which was used by the French to hold freedom fighters, later American prisoners. Unfortunately in a communist state every piece of information is about how cool communism is, and how many obstacles they overcame to raise the red flag and fight off the evil forces of Capitalism. The U.S troops who were held here dubbed it the ‘Hanoi Hilton’, who said Americans didn’t understand irony?  Many of the more interesting records from the Vietnam war are a bit sparse. When I say ‘more interesting’ I mean more interesting for me. The liberation of Vietnam from colonial oppressors is interesting to the Vietnamese but the Vietnam War was  an event with global consequences, not just on geopolitics but on music, popular culture, protest movements, Forrrest Gump and most importantly a really great Movie Genre. Without the Nam War we wouldn’t have such films as:

The Quiet American, Tigerland, Born on the 4th of July, Hamburger Hill, Good Morning Vietnam, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, the Deer Hunter and best of all Apocalypse Now.

I appreciated such movies even more after visiting the War Museum, and the Museum of History. My favourite visit was the museum of Ethnology. It’s a good 10km from the town centre but it has lots of information about all the ethnic minorities of Vietnam. This place opened my eyes to the complexity of humans in most countries, apart from Korea where everyone is Korean and everyone speaks Korean. Vietnam borders China, Laos, Cambodia and is close to Thailand and Myanmar so there is a patchwork of diversity along most of its borders and in the highlands. They were in the process of building a huge extension which will become the Museum of South East Asia. If I ever go again I will be sure to check this place out. In the gardens surrounding this museum they have recreated the dwelling places of all the different tribes through the Indo-Chinese peninsula. It also meant that I could have a little sleep in the shade of a Mong Long house. Actually, it may have been a Hong Longhouse, or a Mong Honghouse, either way it was peaceful.

I think more than anything, Hanoi is just a great place to hang out. If you want the exotic then you can hang out in the street noodle stalls dodging dogs, rats and moto taxis. You can also find modern restaurants and bars. I went to a few bars but when I found out that the local Bia Hoi costs about 20 pence per glass I quickly changed my drinking habits. The lure of the exotic is enough to have established a pretty entrenched backpacker ‘scene’. I put ‘scene’ in punctuation because I’m not entirely sure what it means. There seem to be many hostels and many backpackers trying to find themselves without using a map. Remember, the only zen you find at the top of the mounain is the zen you carry up within yourself. Substitute mountain for any other noun and save yourself some money. I’m sure once they return home and get jobs in provincial telesales operations they will have many stories to tell. The gappackers, as I like to call them annoy me more than most other groups. Possibly because I’ve had more exposure to them. Their spiritual and moral vacuum is usually filled with a poor grasp of pseudo Oriental spirituality, usually Buddhist. If they looked hard enough they would realise that similar transcendental experiences can be found in Christianity, unless they are Church of England, in which case buy a ticket to Vietnam as soon as you have the money. The same pasty faced gap packers also swap the blandness of High Street fashion with the blandness of pointless piercing and loose natural fabric. They will often have easily concealed tattoos, this means the tattoos are a phase not a life choice. In an attempt to be different I have no piercing or tattoos but I I were to get tattooed I would go Maori or Yakuza style. No half measures for me.

I’d say if you had a 6 month gap from education to employment Vietnam is a perfect choice. You can have some great experiences and you get the chance to eat amazing food. The food is amazing. It’s got European finesse combined with finely balance Asian flavors. I could live off Pho Noodles for the rest of my life, they seem to replace everything you lose from sweating in the heat. In conclusion, I like the place very much indeed, did I mention the food was amazing?

Comments
  1. Kate Webster says:

    Nice blog mate!

  2. Karin says:

    I imagine an exotic death maze is just about your ideal sort of a place …

  3. Paul Rowlands says:

    Sounds fantastic mate, would love to go there myself! Good to hear/see your doing well!! Any news when your back in the UK?

    • Miike Green says:

      Hi Fuzz. I signed another year’s contract here in Korea so I definitely won’t be back till Christmas 2012. I have no plans to go back to UK at the moment.

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